Climate Change

Published on June 8th, 2015 | by Don Lieber

The “Significant Public Health Risk” Of Fracking: The Data Mounts

“Elevation in Cancer is Certain to Happen”

The shale ‘boom’ in the United States since the mid-2000s has resulted in unprecedented growth for the oil and gas industry. This is largely the result of the technology known as ‘fracking’ — hydraulic fracturing.

The process involves drilling thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface, then using explosives and hundreds of chemicals to blast apart age-old rock formations causing the release of gasses — stored for centuries inside the planet — which are captured and converted to meet our energy needs by the largest and most profitable companies on Earth. The array of chemicals used includes highly dangerous toxins, including endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins, and carcinogens. (A list of chemicals commonly used in fracking operations can be seen here.)

The industry and its lobbyists insist the process is safe. In recent months, however, numerous studies conducted by a several scientific and academic researchers have been published which link fracking operations directly to significant water, air, and soil contamination across the United States, with serious public health implications. One researcher said that fracking is “spewing cancer-causing chemicals into the air;” another said that an increase in cancers, among residents living close to fracking operations, “was nearly certain.”

The following is a review of recent findings.

In May, the National Academy of Sciences reported on the presence of toxic drilling liquids in household drinking water in Bradford County, Pennsylvania (the ‘most fracked’ county in Pennsylvania). The chemicals, including 2-Butoxyethanol, a known rodent-carcinogen (it’s not known if its carcinogenic in humans) “had migrated laterally” in the soil, from fracking operations, into a public drinking water aquifer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also in May, confirmed several deaths of oil and gas workers, in several states, due to acute exposure of toxic hydrocarbon fumes regularly used in the industry.

Also in May, 100 California government officials sent a letter to Governor Brown calling on a statewide moratorium on fracking operations due to water contamination. The legislators cited growing public concern about the safety of fracking operations since the release, late in 2014, of industry documents which revealed that billions of gallons of highly toxic fracking wastewater was dumped directly into California aquifers which supply both drinking water and farming irrigation. Testing revealed high levels of arsenic, a known carcinogen, and other toxic chemicals including thallium (commonly used as rat poison) in the aquifers.

“The fact that high concentrations are showing up in multiple water wells close to wastewater injection sites raises major concerns about the health and safety of nearby residents,” said Timothy Kranz, a professor of environmental studies at University of Redlands. “Arsenic and thallium are extremely dangerous chemicals.” Previous research confirmed the presence of benzene in California fracking wastewater at hundreds of times higher concentrations than federal standards allow.

In April, researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health reported a strong correlation between radon levels and fracking throughout Pennsylvania. (Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.) The scientists studied over 2 million different radon test sites between 1987 and 2013 at nearly one million buildings and homes. Radon levels increased in direct correlation to the increase in fracking operations during these years. The highest levels were found in locations closest to the drilling operations, often at alarming levels; almost 300,000 locations recorded radon levels which exceeded the EPA’s safety minimum. Townships (where most fracking occurs) had a 39% higher concentration of radon than urban areas. “By drilling 7,000 holes in the ground, the fracking industry may have changed the geology and created new pathways for radon to rise to the surface,” said Joan Casey, a researcher involved in the report. “These findings worry us,” said David S. Schwartz, the lead author of the report.

(Previous studies over the past several years have linked methane contamination in groundwater to nearby fracking operations; in some cases methane had been leaking from wells, continuously, for years before detection.)

In March, the American Chemical Society published the results of a joint study conducted at the University of Oregon and the University of Cincinnati which found high levels of carcinogenic PAHs ( polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons ) in residential areas of Pennsylvania close to active gas wells; air samples were taken throughout the region, and proximity to the wells corresponded to higher concentrations of PAHs. PAHs are commonly used in fracking operations. The author of the study concluded, “Air pollution from fracking operations may pose an under-recognized health hazard to people living near them.”

New York governor Andrew Cuomo cited public health risks when he announced a statewide ban on large-scale fracking in New York in December 2014. “When the public health commissioner says, ‘I wouldn’t let my family live in an area that is doing high-volume fracking,’ that is very sobering, and frankly, that is enough for me,” Cuomo told reporters. “Because if the state health commissioner doesn’t want his kids living there, I don’t want my kids living there, and I don’t want any New Yorkers’ kids living there.”

In October 2014, the journal Environmental Health published a report which concluded that oil and gas operations across the United States are “spewing” dangerous cancer-causing chemicals into the air — the lead author of the study called it “a significant health risk.” The study, conducted by researchers from the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany, found eight poisonous chemicals, in high concentrations, near wells and fracking sites in Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wyoming at levels that far exceeded recommended federal limits. This included hydrogen sulfide, a known neurotoxin, and benzene and formaldehyde, both carcinogens. “I was amazed,” said Dr. David Carpenter, the lead author of the study. “Five orders of magnitude over federal limits for benzene at one site – that’s just incredible. You could practically just light a match and have an explosion with that concentration. This is a significant public health risk.”

Carpenter emphasized the risk of cancer: “Cancer has a long latency, so you’re not seeing an elevation in cancer in these communities. But 5, 10, 15 years from now, elevation in cancer is almost certain to happen.”

Public disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking is limited; there is no federal reporting requirement. Proposals to regulate a mandated reporting system have been thwarted repeatedly by the gas industry and its political allies in state capitals and in the US Congress. The fracking industry exerts considerable influence on the national political stage; oil and gas companies contributed more than $60 million to federal candidates in the 2014 cycle, 87% percent of which went to Republican party members. Republican congressional leadership, in turn, has consistently opposed new disclosure regulations, and lobbyists are active on many fronts across the States to prevent widespread knowledge of the public health dangers. The New England Journal of Medicine in 2013 accused the natural gas industry and its political allies of “infringing on the patient-physician relationship” in Pennsylvania, after the governor enacted laws which restrict the state’s doctors from discussing freely the potential links between a patient’s symptoms and chemicals used in nearby fracking operations.

Most recently, in March 2015, the GOP-led House of Representatives rejected new regulations proposed by the Obama administration which would require disclosure of chemicals used and introduce new regulations on wastewater disposal. House Speaker John Boehner, arguing against the new regulations, promised to “do all we can” to stop attempts to ‘impeded the energy boom.”

“There is no logical reason to add a new layer of top-down bureaucratic regulation,” he said. Boehner received $679,000 from the oil and gas industry in 2014.


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About the Author

Don Lieber has written extensively on human rights, war and disarmament, and environmental issues. His work has been published by the United Nations, The Associated Press, The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, DeSmog Blog, and many others. He also plays bass for the NYC-based band "Wifey" and scrubs surgeries.



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